TAMPA — Lightning right wing Steve Downie, without hesitation Tuesday, answered every question concerning his one-game league suspension.
But his head lowered slightly — and his voice, too — when asked about missing Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal tonight against the Penguins at the St. Pete Times Forum. "I felt like I've let the team down," he said. "It's going to be tough to swallow."
Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz, also suspended for one game, felt the same. "Very disappointed," he said. "You don't ever want to put your team in a bad situation by playing short a man."
Both were suspended for actions in the Penguins' 3-2 victory in Monday's Game 3.
Downie left his feet to clobber defenseman Ben Lovejoy behind Pittsburgh's net. He would have been called for charging, but the Penguins scored on the delayed penalty. Kunitz elbowed Simon Gagne in the back of the head; blind-side and lateral hits to that area are prohibited. Gagne said Kunitz, who received a two-minute penalty, was "trying to come to my head."
Even with the teams facing a huge game, with Pittsburgh leading 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, the rulings dominated the off-day discourse, not only because both teams lost valuable assets but because, especially for Tampa Bay, the punishments from league disciplinarian Colin Campbell seemed inconsistent with previous decisions. There also was an NHL press release that contradicted what the participants said occurred in the Downie hit.
"Whether it's fair or unfair is not the question," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "We don't have our player for (today), and they don't have theirs. We have to manage without them."
• • •
Lovejoy said Downie hit him in the chest: "He didn't launch himself and hit me in the head, so thank you for that."
Downie said he believed his punishment was for leaving his feet. But the NHL release said Downie "delivered a hit to the head" and quoted Campbell as saying he "launched himself at the head of his opponent." No one from the league was available to address the disparity.
Tampa Bay players also wondered why Kunitz received a one-game suspension when Lightning defenseman Pavel Kubina in March got three games for a similar hit on Chicago's Dave Bolland.
Kubina concussed Bolland; Gagne was unhurt. But some wondered if there is a different standard in the playoffs.
"There shouldn't be a double standard," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "If somebody is targeting someone's head like the elbow (Monday), there should be the same consequences as the regular season. The league has to be consistent."
"It's playoff time," Gagne said, "and I don't know if it's changing the decision or not. But if it's one game, it's one game. (Kunitz is) a good player for them, and he's not going to be able to play … so it's good for us."
• • •
Also on the Lightning side, Ryan Malone has an upper-body injury sustained in Game 3. The rugged wing is expected to play tonight, but Tampa Bay recalled Mattias Ritola and Blair Jones from AHL Norfolk.
"We lose some grit," Boucher said of Downie, who had a team-high 171 penalty minutes in the regular season. "When guys like that are missing, the other team knows. They've got a bit more space on the ice."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Eric Tangradi and Mike Comrie are the "main possibilities" to replace Kunitz. He said his team would miss Kunitz's "net presence" on the power play and five-on-five, and physical presence that "creates room" on the forecheck.
"I never intentionally meant to hurt (Gagne), so I'm glad he's okay," Kunitz said. "I was coming through the middle and getting ready to finish a check. I had my arms in a bad spot up in the air anyways, and he kind of spun and turned backwards toward me. I went to brush his shoulder and got him in the head; not very responsible on my part. I've got to definitely be careful."
Downie said the same. "I did lay off a little bit," he said of the hit on Lovejoy. "I could have got him a lot worse. But it is what it is."